Short Story #13: Shame

The office was small and cluttered, with filing cabinets topped with folders and papers lining both walls. At the far end of one of the filing cabinets stood a sorry looking plant. Every long, thin leaf but one was brown and wilting. Professor Akshan sat behind a large wooden desk, reading by a green banker’s desk lamp, and behind the Professor’s chair was a grubby window that let in a dirty orange light from a street lamp.

The Professor had had a shock of long white hair and was wearing an old dark brown tweed jacket. When Jamie entered, he was absorbed in reading a loosely stapled document.

As he approached the Professor’s desk, Jamie noticed a human skull sitting on a large silver platter. The clutter of a Professor’s professional life had built up around it, framing it and drawing the young man’s attention. It had a yellowish tinge and two teeth were missing from its grin but other than that it was intact, staring emptily at him.

“Nice skull,” said Jamie glancing up at the Professor.

“Isn’t it?” Said Professor Akshan, lowering the paper and leaning forward in his worn chair and tilting his head to look at it over the top of his wire-framed glasses. “It was a gift by a dear friend of mine. My mentor, one might say. Please, sit.”

“Is it real?” Asked Jamie, taking his seat and leaning in for a closer look.

“Oh yes. Some poor chap from the 1950s, I believe. Hung himself.”

Jamie looked up at this but the Professor had returned to the document.

“So I suppose you’re wondering why I invited you in?” Asked the Professor, still reading. His voice was slow and deliberate.

“I suspect it’s to do with my last paper,” said Jamie, looking at the skull.

“Quite. You seem to have taken to this research very well. However, I do have some concerns about your methodology,” he indicated the paper he was holding. “Specifically, the homogenous nature of your sample groups and some of the questions you’re asking them. You do remember your ethical training, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Some of these questions are a little…inappropriate, don’t you think?”

“I think they’re relevant.”

“‘Do you believe you should feel shame about your behaviour in this experiment?’”

“I’m just trying to get an idea of how the participants view themselves,” said Jamie, whose eyes had returned to the skull. He stared into the large empty sockets, pitch black in the dimly lit office.

“My dear boy, this should be revealed behaviour. Such a direct question is subjective and of limited value. Wouldn’t it be better to design an experiment to show this to you without their knowledge? Consider revising some of these questions going forward. Now, what’s more concerning to me is this sample group.”

“I have to work with what I have available to me.”

After a moment, Jamie, absorbed by the skull, became aware of the silence and looked up to see the Professor watching him carefully.

“Last time I checked, we were a relatively diverse University. And yet your sample is made up entirely of caucasian males, aged 23-25.” The Professor picked up another paper from his desk. “Here’s your previous one: ‘Shame and the Iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma’, which again features young white males exclusively.”

“I can’t force people to sign up!”

“Quite. However, your peers seem to have no problem in obtaining diverse sample groups.—” Jamie’s eyes dropped back down, meeting the holes of the empty sockets in front of him as the Professor continued.—“You are, of course, aware that the money for much of this research comes with conditions attached. As much as I abhor government interference in our academic lives it is, sadly, a fact of our continued existence as an institution and they have some say in how that money is spent. One of these conditions is that you need to ensure a diverse…”

The Professor’s voice faded as Jamie tilted his head this way and that, examine the construction of this skull. The nasal cavity, the joins on the cranium, the jaw bone that went back and up to connect with the cheek bone, forming that horrible toothy grin. He thought he saw a flash of light through one of the eyes, and leaned in closer to try and see it again. The skull radiated a darkness as he searched, blacking out its surroundings, dominating his attention. He became aware of a ringing in his ears, a high pitch whine that grew in volume as he continued to try and see that little speck of light in there.

He heard a voice. Soft, breathy, whispering a single word. He leaned in closer still, trying to hear it again.

“Shame,” it said. “Shame.”

The word struck like a hammer on an anvil. He closed his eyes and turned away as a long stream of memories flashed through his head in quick succession: he’s five years old, his trousers are wet and children are laughing; he’s seven years old, running into a ditch to try to help the girl he’s pushed in there unintentionally; he’s fourteen, his denials against the accusation of shoplifting ignored by angry adults; he’s seventeen and the girl’s friends are laughing at him, calling him pathetic; he’s twenty-one and the bouncer is saying he’s not welcome.

Suddenly he jumped out of his chair, picked up the skull by the sockets and hurled it against the filing cabinet. It exploded with a loud crack, large bone fragments bouncing back across on the desk. He stared at the wall, breathing heavily.

There was a long silence, then: “James?”

He already knew that this would be added to the list. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the Professor. He turned and walked quickly out of the office.

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